09 October 2020
The Precentor of Limerick
who drowned in Dublin on
his way home to Wexford
Among the many projects that have disappeared in the midst and mists of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown, one was a proposed talk to the Friends of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, last month (8 September 2020) on the precentors of the cathedral.
It was planned as a light, even quirky, yet scholarly, look at some of my predecessors as precentor, recalling some of the more interesting, but also some of the more humorous, more curious and even more eccentric people who have gone before me, and, perhaps, even some of the more tragic precentors too.
The list of Precentors of Limerick goes back to 1204, but their biographical details are very light until the beginning of the 15th century, when we come across Dionisius or Denis O’Dea, who was allowed five years leave of absence as precentor to study at Oxford in 1415. He then became Bishop of Ossory in 1421, but he was allowed to remain Precentor of Limerick too. He had not yet been ordained a priest, and needed a papal dispensation for his ordination and consecration because he was the illegitimate son of a subdeacon.
Awly O Lonysigh, who succeeded O’Dea as Precentor in 1421, was also made Rector of the Monastery of Saint Catherine O’Connell, Limerick, which was abolished because of the ‘dissolute lives of the nuns.’ But he was deprived of office in 1445 when he was reported to the Pope as a ‘notorious fornicator.’
John or Richard Purcell, who was Precentor of Limerick in 1455, was also Archdeacon of Lismore, Papal Nuncio in Ireland and Collector of Papal Dues, and while he was Precentor of Limerick he was also Bishop of Ferns (1457-1479).
After the Reformation, John Long became Precentor of Limerick in the 1560s, and later became Archbishop of Armagh (1584-1589). His successor, Thomas Purcell, was dismissed in 1573 because of his support for the Desmond rebellion. Described as ‘a tall horseman,’ he seems to have spent some time in exile in Spain, and was killed by a Colonel Zouche in 1581.
One of the more tragic precentors at the end of the 16th century must have been Robert Grave.
Born in Kent ca 1560, he was said to have been educated at Cambridge University to have received the degree of MA. However, I can find no record of any college he attended in Cambridge, the date of his degree, when or where he was ordained, or when and why he came to Ireland.
He was in Ireland by 1590, when he was appointed Dean of Cork. A year later, he was appointed Precentor of Limerick in 1591, Precentor of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, in 1595, and then became Prebendary of Tullbracky in Limerick in 1600.
He was holding all four positions in cathedrals three different when he was nominated Bishop of Ferns and Leighlin on 30 April 1600 and was appointed bishop by letters patent on 17 July 1600.
At the time, the two dioceses were facing major financial crises. Grave’s predecessor in the Diocese of Ferns, Hugh Allen (1582-1599), had died at Fethard in 1599 and was buried at the parish church there.
But Hugh Allen, like Bishop Alexander Devereux before him, had made long irregular and long leases of many parts of the see lands. For example, he illegally leased the Manor of Fethard and other lands in south Co Wexford, to his son John Allen, and leased over 1,500 acres of other church lands at small rents to Sir Henry Wallop of Enniscorthy Castle.
In the neighbouring diocese, Richard Meredith had been Bishop of Leighlin (1589-1597) while he was also Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin (1584-1597), and had once been jailed for his complicity in treason.
Meredith spent most of his time in Dublin. When he died in 1597, he was buried in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and the see of Leighlin remained vacant for three years until it was united with Ferns at the appointment of Robert Grave as Bishop of Ferns and Leighlin.
The Diocese of Ferns and Leighlin included most of Co Wexford and Co Carlow and parts of Co Wicklow and Co Laois (then Queen’s County).
Robert Grave was consecrated Bishop of Ferns and Leighlin in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, in August 1600. But he was allowed to retain all his other church posts when he became bishop, including the office of Precentor of Limerick.
At the time, the Bishops of Ferns were living in Wexford, rather than Ferns. In the early 15th century, Bishop Patrick Barrett transferred the bishop’s residence from Ferns Castle to New Ross and built Mountgarrett Castle as his residence. Later bishops lived at Fethard Castle in south Co Wexford, but they seem to have had their principal residence in Saint Mary’s Parish, Wexford, and were buried in the now ruined Saint Mary’s Church.
However, tragedy struck the new bishop soon after his consecration. As he and all his family made their way home by sea to Wexford, they were drowned in Dublin Bay on 1 October 1600. Bishop Grave had a watery grave, and was never buried in Saint Mary’s in Wexford.
Grave’s successor as Bishop of Ferns, Nicholas Stafford, was from an old Wexford family and had been Chancellor of the Diocese of Ferns and Leighlin. He was consecrated bishop early in 1601, and when he died in on 15 November 1604 he was buried in Saint Mary’s Church, Wexford.
Grave’s successor as Precentor of Limerick, John Burgoyne, was also educated at Cambridge. But the records of his education at Cambridge are verifiable, and show that he was educated at Jesus College and received the degrees BA (1581) and MA (1584). While he was Precentor of Limerick (1601-1614), Burgoyne was also Precentor of Waterford (1613).
Over the next few weeks, I may look at some other Precentors of Limerick. Perhaps, when this pandemic has passed and this lockdown is lifted, I may get to tell more stories about these predecessors in Saint Mary’s Cathedral on another day.